Based on Robert Gallagher’s book “Ernie Davis: The Elmira Express,” “The Express” is meant to be an inspirational movie, and there can be no doubt that will be just that for many filmgoers, especially sports fans.
DIRECTED BY Gary Fleder
SCREENPLAY BY Charles Leavitt, based on the book “Ernie Davis: The Elmira Express” by Robert Gallagher
STARRING Rob Brown, Dennis Quaid, Omar Benson Miller, Darrin DeWitt Henson and Charles S. Dutton
RUNNING TIME: 129 minutes
In a way, though, the story of Davis, the first black to win the Heisman trophy, is hurt by its reliance on cliché. As we watch this biopic about a revered athlete who labored at Syracuse University in the shadow of the great Jim Brown, we cannot help but note its reliance on and debt to other movies such as the much finer “Remember the Titans.”
Director Gary Fleder and his writer, Charles Leavitt, try to cover too much ground, and in the process, they splash rather than paint a winning portrait of an athlete who broke records, labored figuratively and literally on a field of bigotry, and then died of leukemia before he had the chance to set more records in the NFL.
It’s a great core of a story, and as one who remembers watching Davis, I looked forward to seeing it almost as much as Syracuse graduates, who surely will flock to the film in droves.
Even as I tried to be swept away by the story, I found myself being increasingly turned off by a paint-by-numbers approach, not helped in the least by Fleder’s lackluster direction. I want to repeat that with the inspirational story, the filmmakers might have had too much of a good thing. Maybe they would have done a finer job if Davis were a controversial figure. Maybe someone should have told Fleder and Leavitt that this movie had to be far superior to “Remember the Titans” or they would be off the job.
Here, they go about their business in conventional fashion. Davis is a kid running from white bullies one minute (that’s to establish his lightning speed) and then he’s living in Elmira with his newly married mother. Along the way, we get hints of his grandfather’s influence, but again only in sketchy form.
At Syracuse, where he played under legendary coach Ben Schwartzwalder, portrayed here by Dennis Quaid, we witness some hostility and then terrible prejudice, epitomized in the 1960 Cotton Bowl game versus Texas, ironically Quaid’s home state. Of course, Davis trumphs over it all, of course he wins the Heisman, and then we get a hint of the illness to come.
As I sat through all of that, I felt as if I were reading a synopsis, witnessing a series of highlights. What I do have to acknowledge is that, for younger audiences, the facts about prejudice on the field in the early ’60s may come as a surprise and eduational experience.
The acting is fine, the facts are mostly right, even if liberties were taken with the sequence of events. But although “The Express” will rekindle interest in the great Ernie Davis, the movie about him is not so great.
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Categories: Entertainment, Life and Arts